Music to work by

Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at avcqa@theonion.com.

I have always needed to have some sort of music on while working. Generally, I listen to something I am familiar with that I can tune out, but still know it’s playing in the background. I have friends who have to have the television on instead. So I was wondering if you guys are the same way, and what kind of music/movies/podcasts/TV shows you listen to while working. —Matt Klempa

Tasha Robinson
90 percent of my average workday is editing text, and I have to keep my head pretty clear of competing words if I’m going to do that efficiently. So unfamiliar music with English lyrics is right out. So are podcasts, TV (or anything with a video component), and too-familiar, catchy music that I might want to sing along to. And yet I often need to have music on as a form of white noise to filter out the competing conversations around me in the office. So I usually look for music with non-English lyrics, which are just noise and won’t catch my attention and distract me. And I tend to like lush stuff that completely fills up my ears and shuts out everything around me. Vas, Mediaeval Baebes, Altan, Sigur Rós, and Ghazal are all pretty good for this. So is Peter Gabriel’s Passion soundtrack, and large parts of the Black Hawk Down soundtrack. (I really need to get more into Middle Eastern rock.) Some Cocteau Twins music works. But if I’m deep enough into editing and I have enough deadlines going, then English doesn’t distract me anymore, and I usually wind up either listening to my obsession of the moment (currently Lady Gaga) or defaulting to The Decemberists, much of which is pretty low-key and meandering, and familiar enough at this point to not be distracting.

Genevieve Koski
My work-music requirements are pretty much the same as Tasha’s, and I have a bunch of instrumental/non-English music that I’ll go to, depending on my mood. I don’t usually go the classical route, since it’s a little too unobtrusive, but if I need some calming down while I work, I usually go with an old Mozart For Your Mind album that I’ve been using since high school. More often, though, I need something a little peppier to keep me going through the day. Weirdly, I often turn to bluegrass music for this; it’s propulsive and upbeat without being in your face about it. I have a playlist that includes some instrumental tracks from Union Station, Nickel Creek, and Cherryholmes, along with a mostly instrumental four-track suite from progressive bluegrass/acoustic group Punch Brothers called “The Blind Leaving The Blind,” which clocks in around 40 minutes and is varied enough in its composition that it doesn’t have the repetitive nature of more traditional bluegrass. But when I can’t stand any more goddamn banjo—usually an hour, tops—I’ll turn to more rock/pop-oriented fare. Explosions In The Sky is my go-to instrumental band, and I also really enjoy the Planet Terror half of the Grindhouse soundtrack; both have an epic quality that makes copy-editing seem a lot more exciting. But sometimes you just need to hear a human voice in your ear, provided you can’t understand what it’s saying. Sigur Rós and Spanish flamenco-electronic band Chambao are what I usually turn to, unless I’m in need of a serious energy boost, in which case I have a few French hip-hop/pop acts in the ol’ iTunes, namely MC Solaar, NTM, and Yelle.

Noel Murray
Unless I’m writing about music, I typically don’t listen to music while I work. One major exception: If it’s late at night, or if I’m working in a crowded spot like an airport or a park, I’ll crank up some music to keep me focused. Any kind of music will do, but I work best to what I call “middle-of-the-night music”: Nick Drake, Jackson Browne, David Crosby, Dire Straits, Idaho, Red House Painters, The Clientele, Midlake… musicians that favor sounds that lap gently and/or weave spells. As for movies and TV, again, I mostly watch whatever I’m writing about, and when I’m done watching it, I turn the TV off and concentrate on finishing the review. (The same applies to editing/preparing my final draft: I need total silence.) But I do keep my TiVo well-stocked with old movies recorded off of TCM, to play while I’m doing writing that doesn’t require long-line thinking: work along the lines of writing 150-word capsules, doing the first read-through of an interview transcription, or taking preliminary notes for future pieces. The trick with TCM is to find movies amiable enough to keep me company, but not so engaging that they distract me. Often, I’ll start watching something, then check my running list of every movie I’ve ever seen (because I’m just the kind of nerd who keeps such a list) and realize that I’ve watched the movie before, even though I don’t remember a thing about it. When that happens, I just keep watching. If it left no impression, it’s the perfect movie to accompany my workday.

Leonard Pierce
If I’m working at my day job, which involves a more or less equal amount of editing and design, anything goes—unless I’m in the mood for something in particular, I just lock down my headphones, set my iPod on shuffle, and let ’er rip. When I’m writing, though, it’s a different story; most vocal music is too distracting, but silence is downright dreary. My preferred default, then, is post-war jazz—usually stuff from the hard-bop/post-bop small-combo era of the ’50s and early ’60s. Cannonball Adderley, Charles Mingus, Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, and Hank Mobley are some of my go-to guys here; put them on, and I’m good for a long night of coaxing out the lingo. It’s music that’s mellow and contemplative; I’ve found it doesn’t just wash over you like it wasn’t even there, but rather worms its way in and makes you notice its structure, complexity, and grace without being too obtrusive. Jazz: it’s brain food for the ears.

Jason Heller
Back when I was chained to a desk 60-plus hours a week, I’d usually work out my sedentary frustrations by blasting the loudest, sickest shit I could find on my iPod—Cave In’s Until Your Heart Stops, Terrorizer’s World Downfall, and the Hellhammer discography are big favorites. Now that I pick up a few warehouse shifts a week to supplement my freelance income, I find myself, oddly enough, settling on somewhat gentler music: Billy Bragg, George Jones, Kate Bush, Smokey Robinson, and The Louvin Brothers are all great artists to stuff in my headspace while wandering around the floor of a dusty warehouse, pulling orders and not having to worry too much about concentrating on anything in particular. And since my lifestyle is now eerily similar to the one I held when I was 19, Paul’s Boutique by Beastie Boys and Substance by Joy Division seem to be summoned to my earbuds more often—not to mention, of course, plenty of classic rock. Yes, that means The Eagles. Sue me.

Claire Zulkey
When I’m writing, I can’t listen to anything. When I’m focusing on something at the office that involves a little more repetition, I listen to podcasts: usually Sound Opinions, Fresh Air, Savage Love, This American Life, and Maximum Fun fare. At lunch, I listen to the classical station while I read Internet gossip (which is kind of like working, right?) and then at 3, I listen to All Things Considered. For some reason I save listening to music I like for when I cook or do dishes. I took a break from scullery work to write this, and so far, XTC, George Harrison, and Spoon have escaped my eternal iTunes skipping. 

Zack Handlen
Depends where I’m working. If I’m writing, I can’t listen to anything with words in it. Given my utter lack of knowledge about classical or jazz, this means I either listen to a Glenn Gould recording of The Goldberg Variations, Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue, or a movie soundtrack. (I’m listening to Kind Of Blue right now, actually.) With soundtracks, I flirt with trying to match the mood of what I’m writing to the mood of what I listen to, but it’s sort of haphazard; generally, it just works out that I play whatever I haven’t heard in a while. At my library job, though, anything goes. Sometimes I shuffle through the whole collection. (Lyle Lovett, Ray Charles, Andrew Bird, Ella Fitzgerald, Elvis Costello, Neko Case, etc.) Sometimes I spend the whole day listening to just one artist. (Been hitting the Tom Waits stuff hard of late.) And sometimes, I listen to podcasts, TV shows, or audiobooks. Most of my main job is gruntwork: pulling books, scanning journal articles, packaging loans. Which gives me lots of time to think, and since I try to avoid thinking whenever I can, I like to fill that time up with loud noises of any variety.

Sean O’Neal
Back when I was doing Buzzkills on the regular, I found that piano-driven classical music—particularly ominous stuff like Sergei Rachmaninoff—put me in the right frame of mind, as well as a lot of neo-classical like Max Richter, Michael Cashmore, Hauschka, Nico Muhly, and Julia Kent, and that’s still typically what I finish out the day with. By mid-afternoon, you’ll usually find me in my dimly lit office, hunched over the keyboard with a large white cat in my lap, churning out prose to the gloomy strains of cellos; it’s like something out of a German expressionist film. And when I’m in need of serious inspiration, I do what all great writers have done: Put DJ Jazzy Jeff And The Fresh Prince’s “I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson” on repeat. I think Thomas Pynchon finished Mason & Dixon that way.

Scott Gordon
Ever since I started this job, I’ve neurotically fussed over whether I could really absorb music in any meaningful way while staring at a computer screen and editing stuff. So I try to save the music I actually have to write about for the in-between moments (walks, car time, staring-at-the-wall time, at-home-with-turntable time). When I really need to hammer something out, my motivational tunes lean toward the heavy and driving. For some reason, Big BusinessHere Come The Waterworks always bullwhips me into a burst of productivity. I’ve tried the same with Meshuggah, but that’s usually a bit too dramatic; I recently discovered Amon Amarth to be a good middle ground, not crude, but certainly catchy. (Plus, it turns bitchy editing sessions into Viking battles.) On the less brutal side, I picked up Steinski’s mix collection What Does It All Mean? last year and found it hypnotic in a work-friendly way. And when I’m trying to keep calm without quite chilling out, there’s always Benoit Pioulard’s restorative blend of ambient and acoustic on Precis, and Aphex Twin’s Chosen Lords and Selected Ambient Works 85-92.

Keith Phipps
Funny, I don’t think I’ve ever talked about this with a lot of co-workers, but I’m finding a lot of variations on my own issues with music and work. Depending on my mood, I can listen to almost anything while I edit or write except hip-hop. (Too many words competing for my attention.) But the rules for editing don’t apply for just plain reading, especially fiction. Editing requires an intensity of focus that trumps whatever’s going on in my headphones. But reading, I find that most music keeps distracting me. Vocals are a problem, but instrumentals, too. If Sonny Rollins is telling me to feel one thing and Joseph Conrad is telling me something else, it’s a problem. I do a lot of my reading on buses and trains filled with crazy people and/or cell-phone abusers, so I have to listen to something, so I usually try to find something instrumental and emotionally gray. I just discovered Fennesz’s Endless Summer. That goes with just about anything.

Nathan Rabin
I don’t ever listen to music while I work (unless I’m, you know, reviewing music) so I am unqualified to answer this question. 

Kyle Ryan
I’m with everyone else here: I can’t really listen to anything while I’m editing, unless it’s really noisy (chatty interns) or otherwise distracting. (Sales reps make cringe-inducing cold calls.) When I do listen to music, I’m usually reviewing it, or I’m going through the ever-growing mountain of CDs and download links I receive. The vast majority of it doesn’t do anything for me, but every now and then, I’ll find something that really sticks. It’s how I discovered The Gaslight Anthem and Say Hi. I’m always behind (sorry, publicists!), but I get through them eventually.

Josh Modell
I mostly listen to stuff I need to listen to, but like most everybody else on here who edits, I find it difficult to actually listen to anything with words while trying to put together words on a screen. (I don’t listen to a record while I’m reviewing it, either—just a bunch before.) Anyway, I swear I’m not just saying this to appease the commenters who were so bummed that we didn’t acknowledge Boards Of Canada in our decade coverage, but my go-to background disc for editing/calming down is The Campfire Headphase. In a similar vein, there’s also Wunder’s ridiculously good self-titled disc from 2006, as well as Casino Versus Japan’s Go Hawaii.

Christopher Bahn
If I’m trying to have something on in the background while I concentrate on something else, I either keep playing whatever album has my temporary obsession that week, or sometimes even just one song, which is why my iTunes lists Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower” at something like 150 plays over the last three years. Or I go for a playlist on shuffle of something that a) I’m already very familiar with, b) has dozens of songs, so there’ll still be a little surprise about what comes next, and c) is good enough that I will never get sick of it or feel like I have to keep constantly forwarding past stuff I don’t want to hear right now. That’ll often be Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling StonesTom Waits, Robyn Hitchcock, Howlin’ Wolf, Roky Erickson, or my collections of old prewar blues or African pop.

Erik Adams
I’m the easily distracted type, so when I’m writing, I like to listen to nothing—well, simulated nothing at least, generated by noise-canceling headphones. It does wonders for concentration, something that hadn’t occurred to me until I read about how a pair of unplugged, noise-canceling headphones figured into the writing routine of late theologian Robert L. Short (better known in this corner of the Internet as the guy who found Jesus in Peanuts). Short spent a short period as an associate pastor at my parents’ church in Michigan, and in addition to being one of the few people who’s ever been able to hold my attention during a Sunday-morning service, it turns out his writing methods are one of the best ways to keep my mind on the task at hand, rather than my e-mail (or the articles on the Austin AVC site, or the comments on the national site, or playing in the snow with Hobbes). 

When it comes to editing, however, I’d like to continue beating the dead, non-lyrical horse by throwing my support behind Miles Davis, as collected on Sony’s The Essential Miles Davis. It’s slightly shameful that I don’t listen to something legitimately “essential” by Davis (as is my ignorance of jazz in general) but the first disc of this bourgie comp flows from one song to the next in a pleasantly non-distracting way, and the odd splat of horns punctuates the occasionally mind-numbing task of, say, proofreading a Gossip Girl TV Club post. Sorry I don’t have time to bone up on the true classics, jazz connoisseurs—I’ve got work to do.